Betrayed and sold out by the West
Bishop Macram Max Gassis, of El Obeid in Central Sudan, speaks about the persecution of Christians in his country and about the indifference of the West.
He was interviewed by Thomas Kötter during a visit to the international headquarters of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: Bishop, are the reports of recent Christian persecutions in Sudan actually true?
Bishop Gassis: Unfortunately, the reports are all too true. The persecution in the South is both religious and ethnic in nature. It is directed first and foremost against the African population - and not only in the South of the country but throughout the whole of Sudan.
Q: One hears of cases of slavery.
Bishop Gassis: Slavery is a reality. Our children are being stolen by Islamic soldiers. They burn down entire villages, plunder them and take the children away - with the blessing of the regime in Khartoum. In accordance with their notion of "holy war" they see human beings as no more than war booty which they can dispose of at will. Children are often rounded up like cattle and branded all over their bodies, so that they can be more easily recaptured and returned to their "masters" should they try to run away. Young girls are frequently torn from their families, raped, and made pregnant by their tormentors. And female circumcision is used as a brutal physical and psychological weapon by the fundamentalists, as a means of saying to these women: "You belong to Islam, and so you must simply put up with the fact". Even the former prime minister of Sudan, Sadek al-Mahdi, has admitted that such things do take place.
Q: In 1999 the case of the Catholic priest, Father Hilary Boma, created a stir when he was threatened with crucifixion. Aid to the Church in Need and other organisations were successful in campaigning for his release at the time. Have you heard since then of crucifixions?
Bishop Gassis: One of my own catechists was abused and threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. When he refused to convert to Islam they tortured him and then crucified him. He survived, and continued to work as a village judge, until he was murdered two months ago.
Q: Are you also being personally persecuted?
Bishop Gassis: Yes, simply the fact that I can now no longer be in my diocese, in my church and with my flock; this enables me to feel something of what it is like to be a refugee. I do not suffer persecution to the same extent as vast numbers of my people, yet I do have some idea of the humiliation that many people are exposed to.
Q: Why is the world silent in the face of such atrocities? Why does no one raise their voice on behalf of these victims?
Bishop Gassis: For a variety of reasons. For one thing, the regime in Khartoum is very clever at keeping the media world away from the cruel reality. And besides, the media again and again only show interest in sensational novelties, such as the "500 killed", for example. In Sudan people do not often die in large numbers at a single stroke, but they do die unceasingly. Since the beginning of the civil war we have had a total of two million dead and five million refugees - yet nobody speaks about it. When the regime made food supplies dependant on people agreeing to become arabised and islamised, the media were quite silent. And when we, the Catholic bishops, sent out an SOS and warned of an impending famine, the international community did not stir. When they finally did move, the catastrophe was already upon us. Where were the media then? If anything is to be changed in a country, then there needs to be continued reporting. The constant publicity given to the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and to the apartheid system in South Africa did bring about much good in these countries. Why should that not be possible in Sudan also?
Q: Has anything changed since the 11th September?
Bishop Gassis: Prior to the 11th September there was a great reluctance even to admit that there are persecutions of Christians by Islamic fundamentalists, because people did not want to provoke the Islamic countries against themselves. Why did the West only raise its voice for the Kosovars? Why did the whole Western world move to defend the Kurds, who are for the most part Muslims, and why, by contrast, has no one in the so-called "Christian" Western world, either in the media or among the governments, done anything to defend their Christian brothers and sisters in Sudan? At least the terrorist attacks of 11th September have made the Western nations aware of what I was already saying 18 years ago, namely that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to world security. At that time no one wanted to believe me. Once communism was the monster that frightened the Western nations. The fight against this monster has caused the Western nations to overlook the fact that there is a still greater danger to civilisation and to Christianity, namely Islamic fundamentalism. I use the word "Islamic fundamentalism" advisedly, for I have no wish to discredit Islam as a religion. The Church is ready for dialogue with our Islamic sisters and brothers. But Islamic fundamentalism is no religion but rather a political and economic ideology.
Q: To what extent are the oil reserves in the South of Sudan affecting the situation?
Bishop Gassis: Quite dramatically! Before, almost no one cared about this country. Now countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Canada are showing interest in Sudan. Because of the oil. Just as Christ was betrayed for 30 silver pieces, so my people are being betrayed and sold by their "fellow Christians" in the West for a few of barrels of oil. As to whether the African Christians or the adherents of the natural religions live or are exterminated, the western governments seem not in the least interested. What matters is business. And once the African peoples in Sudan have been entirely wiped out, then the "Christian" West will doubtless build memorials to them.